By Peter Finney Jr.
Dave Baranowski was a corporate hot-shot with Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis, charged with making sure the beer company’s $1 billion annual marketing budget pounded home the mantra that the buying public could find no greater refreshment and satisfaction than “The King of Beers.”
“I was fortunate to work for ‘The King of Beers’ for 30 years,” Baranowski told 200 people who attended a Catholic evangelization workshop Sept. 9 sponsored by the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ Office of Evangelization. “And, now, I hope to work for the King of Kings for the rest of my life.”
A ‘pew’ Catholic past
Baranowski said his last five years as the director of stewardship education for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, which came after spending most of his life as a “pew” Catholic, have convinced him that there is real power in sharing personal faith stories, one on one, as a way every Catholic can evangelize both those who are close to them and those they meet in line for coffee.
“I thought I had the absolute answers,” Baranowski told the gathering, which was funded by a grant from Our Sunday Visitor. “I thought I could do it on my own. I realized, at 47 years of age, that ‘God, I need you. I am broken, and I need you. I want to be a better father. I want to be a better husband. I want to be a better friend.’ And that was when I finally realized I couldn’t do it on my own.”
Baranowski said his mother died 13 years ago, and he could do nothing to heal “this huge hole in my heart.” Not knowing where else to turn, he spoke to his parish priest.
“I was a ‘convenient’ Catholic,” Baranowski said. “I was Catholic when it was convenient for me. Father really didn’t know me. He knew me more as ‘Envelope 153.’”
His pastor suggested that Baranowski make a retreat, which he did. It was on that retreat at the White House Jesuit Retreat Center that Baranowski was introduced to St. Ignatius’ idea that gratitude is a fundamental disposition of every believer.
Baranowski began to think and to pray for by name all the people who had made a difference in his life.
Engulfed by gratitude
“On the last night, I got to the 12th station, where Jesus was crucified,” Baranowski said. “In one hand I had the prayer guide, and in the other I had this list of all these people that God had put in my life. I am not a holy roller, but that night, when I looked up at the crucifix, I was absolutely overcome with emotion. There was this wave of gratitude I could feel rushing over me – all these people, these gifts that God had put into my life.”
Baranowski said the day’s theme – “Every Believer an Evangelizer: Fostering a Culture of Witness” – hit home because he believes every Catholic can be better at sharing the joy of their faith with others without it being awkward.
It could start with very simple steps, he said. Baranowski said parishes that have ministry leaders or other parishioners get up after Communion and explain how God has worked in their lives can break down barriers and enliven faith.
“Everybody loves a good story,” Baranowski said. “We just have to take the time to figure out what our story is. When people ask me about my relationship with God, it’s easy for me to talk about it because it’s the truth. I don’t worry about misquoting Scripture or church dogma, because I talk about my experience. That tends to disarm even the harshest critics.
“St. Augustine had a great line: ‘The truth is like a wine. You don’t have to defend it. Let it loose, and it will defend itself. That’s why I think there is power in our own stories.”
A passing conversation
Baranowski said when a person overhears something negative about the church or religion in a grocery line, he or she could say, “You know what? That isn’t my experience” and explain a personal faith story.
Often, people think of evangelization as going door-to-door and canvassing the neighborhood. Baranowski said while that is good, Catholics need to start within their church-going community and be more open and friendlier. Fully one half of all Catholics who are registered in a parish do not attend Mass regularly.
“We need to start with the people closest to us,” Baranowski said. “Why don’t we start with the people we know? Let’s narrow it down even further. Let’s look within our own family. Maybe it’s my spouse or my child or my parents.”
Never forget the power of a personal invitation, Baranowski said, rather than just a general announcement. Parishes that allow laypeople to talk at Mass about their ministry or their faith also report amazing results.
It is important for churchgoers to hear what the parish did during the previous month to help people through their various ministries, he said.
“If that happened in your parish, people would be astounded,” Baranowski said.
Even simple things help, like moving to the middle of the pew to allow people who are late coming to Mass an easier transition. Baranowski did that once, allowing a young family with small children to fit into the pew. Helping with the children during the Mass led to a friendship between the families.
As Archbishop Gregory Aymond looked out on the people sitting at tables in Schulte Auditorium on a Saturday morning for an evangelization workshop, he expressed wonder and gratefulness.
“I’m very impressed to see all these people,” the archbishop said. “There are at least five or six other things you could have done, but you realize you are evangelizers. All believers are true evangelizers. You and I are committed to forming a culture of witness and we want to be those witnesses. The world is hungry for the message of Christ.”
“If we do not evangelize,” said Dominican Father Dave Caron, head of the archdiocesan evangelization office, “we will fossilize.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.